Impermanence, also known as the philosophical problem of change, is a philosophical concept addressed in a variety of religions and philosophies. In Eastern philosophy it is notable for its role in the Buddhist three marks of existence. It is also an element of Hinduism. In Western philosophy, it is most famously known through its first appearance in Greek philosophy in the writings of Heraclitus and in his doctrine of panta rhei (everything flows). In Western philosophy, the concept is also referred to as becoming.
The Pali word for impermanence, anicca, is a compound word consisting of “a” meaning non-, and “nicca” meaning “constant, continuous, permanent”. While ‘nicca’ is the concept of continuity and permanence, ‘anicca’ refers to its exact opposite; the absence of permanence and continuity. The term is synonymous with the Sanskrit term anitya (a + nitya). The concept of impermanence is prominent in Buddhism, and it is also found in various schools of Hinduism and Jainism. The term also appears in the Rigveda.
Impermanence, called anicca (Pāli) or anitya (Sanskrit), appears extensively in the Pali Canon as one of the essential doctrines of Buddhism. The doctrine asserts that all of conditioned existence, without exception, is “transient, evanescent, inconstant”. All temporal things, whether material or mental, are compounded objects in a continuous change of condition, subject to decline and destruction. All physical and mental events are not metaphysically real. They are not constant or permanent; they come into being and dissolve.
Anicca is understood in Buddhism as the first of the three marks of existence (trilakshana), the other two being dukkha (suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness) and anatta (non-self, non-soul, no essence). It appears in Pali texts as, “sabbe sankhara anicca, sabbe sankhara dukkha, sabbe dhamma anatta”, which Szczurek translates as, “all conditioned things are impermanent, all conditioned things are painful, all dhammas are without Self”.
All physical and mental events, states Buddhism, come into being and dissolve. Human life embodies this flux in the aging process, the cycle of repeated birth and death (Samsara), nothing lasts, and everything decays. This is applicable to all beings and their environs, including beings who have reincarnated in deva (god) and naraka (hell) realms.
Anicca is intimately associated with the doctrine of anatta, according to which things have no essence, permanent self, or unchanging soul. The Buddha taught that because no physical or mental object is permanent, desires for or attachments to either causes suffering (dukkha). Understanding Anicca and Anatta are steps in the Buddhist’s spiritual progress toward enlightenment.
Everything, whether physical or mental, is a formation (Saṅkhāra), has a dependent origination and is impermanent. It arises, changes and disappears. According to Buddhism, everything in human life, all objects, as well as all beings whether in heavenly or hellish or earthly realms in Buddhist cosmology, is always changing, inconstant, undergoes rebirth and redeath (Samsara). This impermanence is a source of dukkha. This is in contrast to nirvana, the reality that is nicca, or knows no change, decay or death.
Rupert Gethin on Four Noble Truths says:
As long as there is attachment to things that are
unstable, unreliable, changing and impermanent,
there will be suffering –
when they change, when they cease to be
what we want them to be.
If craving is the cause of suffering, then the cessation
of suffering will surely follow from ‘the complete
fading away and ceasing of that very craving’:
its abandoning, relinquishing, releasing, letting go.
The term Anitya (अनित्य), in the sense of the impermanence of objects and life, appears in verse 1.2.10 of the Katha Upanishad, one of the Principal Upanishads of Hinduism. It asserts that everything in the world is impermanent, but impermanent nature of things is an opportunity to obtain what is permanent (nitya) as the Hindu scripture presents its doctrine about Atman (Self). The term Anitya also appears in the Bhagavad Gita in a similar context.
Buddhism and Hinduism share the doctrine of Anicca or Anitya, that is “nothing lasts, everything is in constant state of change”; however, they disagree on the Anatta doctrine, that is whether Self exists or not. Even in the details of their respective impermanence theories, state Frank Hoffman and Deegalle Mahinda, Buddhist and Hindu traditions differ. Change associated with Anicca and associated attachments produces sorrow or Dukkha asserts Buddhism and therefore need to be discarded for liberation (nibbana), while Hinduism asserts that not all change and attachments lead to Dukkha and some change – mental or physical or self-knowledge – leads to happiness and therefore need to be sought for liberation (moksha). The Nicca (permanent) in Buddhism is anatta (non-soul), the Nitya in Hinduism is atman (Self).
Impermanence first appears in Greek philosophy in the writings of Heraclitus and his doctrine of panta rhei (everything flows). Heraclitus was famous for his insistence on ever-present change as being the fundamental essence of the universe, as stated in the famous saying, “No man ever steps in the same river twice” This is commonly considered to be a key contribution in the development of the philosophical concept of becoming, as contrasted with “being”, and has sometimes been seen in a dialectical relationship with Parmenides’ statement that “whatever is, is, and what is not cannot be”, the latter being understood as a key contribution in the development of the philosophical concept of being. For this reason, Parmenides and Heraclitus are commonly considered to be two of the founders of ontology. Scholars have generally believed that either Parmenides was responding to Heraclitus, or Heraclitus to Parmenides, though opinion on who was responding to whom has varied over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. Heraclitus’ position was complemented by his stark commitment to a unity of opposites in the world, stating that “the path up and down are one and the same”. Through these doctrines Heraclitus characterized all existing entities by pairs of contrary properties, whereby no entity may ever occupy a single state at a single time. This, along with his cryptic utterance that “all entities come to be in accordance with this Logos” (literally, “word”, “reason”, or “account”) has been the subject of numerous interpretations.
Impermanence was widely but not universally accepted among subsequent Greek philosophers. Democritus’ theory of atoms entailed that assemblages of atoms were impermanent. Pyrrho declared that everything was astathmēta (unstable), and anepikrita (unfixed). Plutarch commented on impermanence saying “And if the nature which is measured is subject to the same conditions as the time which measures it, this nature itself has no permanence, nor “being,” but is becoming and perishing according to its relation to time. The Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations contains many comments about impermanence, such as “Bear in mind that everything that exists is already fraying at the edges, and in transition, subject to fragmentation and to rot.” (10.18)
Plato rejected impermanence, arguing against Heraclitus:
How can that be a real thing which is never in the same state? … for at the moment that the observer approaches, then they become other … so that you cannot get any further in knowing their nature or state …. but if that which knows and that which is known exist ever … then I do not think they can resemble a process or flux ….
Several famous Roman Latin sayings are about impermanence, including Omnia mutantur, Sic transit gloria mundi, and Tempora mutantur.
The change was one of the chief concerns of the Eleatic school of thought founded by Parmenides. Parmenides considered non-existence to be absurd, and thus asserted that it was impossible for something to come into existence out of nothing, or for something to pass out of existence into nothing. By “something”, he was referring not just to material, but to any general predicate; rejecting, for instance, changes of color, as they involved the new color arising from nothing and the old colour passing into nothing. He, therefore, rejected all change as impossible, and claimed that reality was an undifferentiated and unchanging whole.
These ideas were taken up by various followers of Parmenides, most notably Melissus and Zeno, who provided additional arguments, specifically for the impossibility of motion. Melissus claimed that reality was “full” (nonexistence being impossible), and that therefore nothing could move. Zeno gave a series of arguments which were particularly influential. Among the simplest was his observation that to move from A to B, one must first reach the halfway point between A and B; but then in order to do this, one must get halfway from A to this halfway point; and so on. Thus all motion involves an infinite number of steps, which Zeno held to be impossible. A similar argument involved a footrace between Achilles and a tortoise. The tortoise is given a head start. Achilles quickly reaches the point where the tortoise stood, but by this time the tortoise has moved on a little, so Achilles must now reach this new point, and so on. A different argument involved the flight of an arrow. Zeno observed that if one considers a single moment of time, the arrow is not moving in that moment. He then claimed it was impossible that an arrow in motion could arise as the result of a sequence of motionless arrows.
Responses to the Eleatics
The atomism of Democritus and Leucippus can be seen as a response to the Eleatic denial of change. The atomists conceded that something coming from or becoming nothing was impossible, but only with respect to material substance, not to general qualities. They hypothesized that every visible object was in fact a composite of unseen indivisible particles of different shapes and sizes. These particles were held to be eternal and unchanging, but by rearranging themselves, the composite objects which they formed could come into and go out of being. These composite objects and their properties were not taken as truly real; in the words of Democritus, “by convention sweet, by convention bitter; by convention hot, by convention cold; by convention color: but in reality atoms and void.” Any perceived change in an object’s properties was therefore illusory and not susceptible to the objections of Parmenides.
Anaxagoras provided a similar response, but instead of atoms, he hypothesized a number of eternal, primal “ingredients” which were mixed together in a continuum. No material object was made of a pure ingredient; rather, it had its material character due to a preponderance of various ingredients over every other. In this way, Anaxagoras could assert that nowhere did any ingredient ever fully come into or go out of being.
According to the Silk Road philologist, Christopher I. Beckwith, the ancient Greek philosopher, Pyrrho, based his new philosophy, Pyrrhonism, on elements of Early Buddhism, most particularly the Buddhist three marks of existence. Pyrrho accompanied Alexander the Great on his Indian campaign, spending about 18 months in Taxila studying Indian philosophy. Diogenes Laërtius’ biography of Pyrrho reports that Pyrrho based his philosophy on what he learned there:
…he even went as far as the Gymnosophists, in India, and the Magi. Owing to which circumstance, he seems to have taken a noble line in philosophy, introducing the doctrine of acatalepsy (incomprehensibility), and of the necessity of epoche (suspending one’s judgment)….
A summary of Pyrrho’s philosophy was preserved by Eusebius, quoting Aristocles, quoting Pyrrho’s student Timon, in what is known as the “Aristocles passage.”
“Whoever wants to live well (eudaimonia) must consider these three questions: First, how are pragmata (ethical matters, affairs, topics) by nature? Secondly, what attitude should we adopt towards them? Thirdly, what will be the outcome for those who have this attitude?” Pyrrho’s answer is that “As for pragmata they are all adiaphora (undifferentiated by a logical differentia), astathmēta (unstable, unbalanced, not measurable), and anepikrita (unjudged, unfixed, undecidable). Therefore, neither our sense-perceptions nor our doxai (views, theories, beliefs) tell us the truth or lie; so we certainly should not rely on them. Rather, we should be adoxastoi (without views), aklineis (uninclined toward this side or that), and akradantoi (unwavering in our refusal to choose), saying about every single one that it no more is than it is not or it both is and is not or it neither is nor is not.
According to Beckwith’s analysis of the Aristocles Passage, Pyrrho translated the Buddhist concept of anicca into Greek as anepikrita, i.e., that pragmata (issues, things, dharmas) are unfixed. They keep changing, and as such cannot be judged.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia